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L’autonomie en pratique(s)

Philippe Caumières
Sophie Klimis

Confronting Heteronomy

Stathis Gourgouris

Texte intégral

1To presume to speak under such a heading with an impetus to engage the real world is a bit of a folly, for confronting heteronomy is an almost impossible task beyond mere discourse. But it is something that Cornelius Castoriadis – whose thought I examine here in this light – spent his entire life thinking about and acting on, something that most people in most societies in the history of the world have surely avoided. So, despite the folly, the title stands, for it encapsulates the first and necessary step in all action that can be called, substantially, emancipatory action, which is what the project of autonomy foremost demands. This is all the more intriguing now that contemporary conditions have brought the question of emancipatory action to the forefront, in overt political ways and from social-historical sources that would have been previously unfathomable (for example, what has been named, in rather cavalier fashion, the Arab Spring).

  • 1 See “Philosophy and Sublimation”, Thesis Eleven, 49 (May 1997), p. 31-44 and “On Self-Alteration”,(...)

2I address these contemporary conditions elsewhere in detail, but I invoke them here because they do provide the social-historical impetus for what is otherwise a primarily philosophical inquiry. My idea is to stage a juxtaposition of two prominent domains in Castoriadis’ thinking that have not otherwise been considered in tandem, especially when the project of autonomy is at the forefront of the inquiry where usually (for understandable reasons) a thinker’s likely tendency is to take an overtly political orientation. The two domains are: on the one hand, Castoriadis’ concern with the problem of the living being (le vivant) and, on the other hand, his attempt to reconsider the epistemological terms within which we think, not merely the philosophical problems of existence (for him ontological and anthropological), but a kind of contemporary cosmology that engages the problem of chaos in the world we live in. Both can be thought of as “natural- existential” domains as they are both engaged with the problem of physis, but insofar as this is crossed by nomos, both are considerations of the enigma of the institution of society, that is, the mode by which human beings organize their “natural-existential” dimensions of living into a historical cosmos that becomes a source of meaning. Castoriadis never ceases to remind us of this. There is a third dimension essential to this particular configuration – the psychoanalytic dimension – about which I have spoken extensively however, so I skip it here, although it necessarily shadows the entire discussion1.

3It is certainly worth noting in passing that a broad range of language emerging from Castoriadis’ thought, especially about democracy and autonomy against barbarism, is nowadays surfacing explicitly in radical youth circles in many parts of the world, even outside Europe. This is implicated, of course, in the new radical democracy movements, which are taking place under a variety of names but share an impetus for political action outside established parameters of parliamentary liberalism without, however, basing themselves on the reproduction of clichés of revolutionary violence. It is this curious conjuncture that makes our reflections here ever more urgent.

4The most elemental understanding of Castoriadis’ thinking in relation to heteronomy is that heteronomy is self-instituted. This simple realization is often overlooked, even though Castoriadis spoke almost from the outset of society’s significational closure precipitated by its self-occultation, except for rare social-historical occasions where closure is partially broken, and moreover, he always insisted on lucidity (which is not the same as simple self-consciousness in the traditional sense) whenever he attempted to configure the actions of social autonomy in various ways over the years.

5To say that heteronomy is self-instituted means that confronting heteronomy is nothing less than confronting oneself – and more precisely, one’s own self-creation of an other who stands in for one’s self. There are all kinds of essential psychoanalytic dimensions to this, which, as I mentioned, I have addressed before, especially in relation to Castoriadis’ notion of self-alteration. I would only add that in the same way we would argue that self-alteration is an essential conceptual component to the project of autonomy, repression of self-alteration and the displacement of one’s own alterity onto an external figure is the essential component of heteronomy.

  • 2 Adorno began configuring this argument through his concept of “natural history” in 1932 and it inf (...)

6This displacement suggests that a heteronomous relation operates in a double way. On the one hand, it necessitates the internalization of various certainties or givens – or rather, more accurately, of certain values, ideas, or practices which are internalized as given, indisputable, unquestionable, or further yet, which become given, indisputable, unquestionable by virtue of being internalized and thus naturalized. Theodor Adorno was especially keen on how “second nature” was the key trope of socialization, of internalizing social institutions which, according to his metaphor, formed a kind of geological sedimentation on the organization of subjectivity2. On the other hand, there is a certain kind of external heteronomy, that is, the compulsion or subjugation exercised upon us by institutional power, whether it is corporeal or psychological, overt or tacit. No doubt, as necessary as the distinction is, the line between what is internalized and what is external heteronomy is always blurred, since no external heteronomy can ever be totally achieved without some last instance of internalization; hence the imperative of ideology. Consumerism, for example, epitomizes this blurring, reversing even people’s internalized condition by their consent to an externally driven compulsion. The relentless desire for novelty in consumer addiction is predicated not on the desire to compete for commodities in society, to outshine the neighbors in fancy gadgets or performance of lifestyle, but on investment in ever-renewing one’s phantasms, which then “suddenly” appear to be commensurate with what “objectively” exists as a trend. In today’s waste capitalism, the creation of phantasms is hijacked from the individual’s psyche and reproduced as external imposition.

  • 3 See Castoriadis (C.), Thucydide, la force et le droit, Seuil, Paris, 2011, p. 93-94, and on hetero (...)

7As heteronomy is a social condition that human beings institute for themselves, whatever counts as external here cannot belong to the realm of nature. The law of gravity makes certain that if I jump off a building I will crash and be shattered, and it is ridiculous to argue that for this reason it is an oppressive law because it does not allow me to fly. Parachutes or bungee cords, gliders or even airplanes are glorious prosthetic inventions of defying the effect of this law, and they may even satisfy my crazy desire to fly, but do not obviously abolish the law that doesn’t actually allow me to fly. We cannot possibly consider our subjection to the law of gravity an instance of heteronomy, even if gravity’s “alterity” is indisputable and outmaneuverable. The alterity of the reality principle as such, whose culmination is death itself, cannot possibly be considered a source of heteronomy: “However we consider the matter, we cannot support the argument that death, or reality more generally, are sources of heteronomy, precisely in the same way that we cannot conceive the existence of other individuals or of society as a source of heteronomy. Only collective existence exists; only social existence exists. It’s ridiculous to think that “hell is the others”. [The reference is to the famous line in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.] The others may be a source of obstruction, as may be reality itself, but it is equally a source of potential. Which it is of the two will always depend on what I am3.” Heteronomy occurs not because law (nomos) belongs to an other (heteron), but because I make law into an other (in the full poietic sense of making), because I have conferred on law an otherness that comes to seem intrinsic to it, or even more, to be a source of it.


  • 4 Adams (S.), Castoriadis’Ontology: Being and Creation, Fordham University Press, New York, 2011.

8I concur with Suzi Adams’ analysis of a certain shift in Castoriadis’ trajectory of thinking about questions of physis, which perhaps can be configured as a turn of emphasis toward the study of the living being as such after having studied social-historical being, without meaning to suggest that the second is ever abandoned or overcome4. To be sure, Castoriadis’ overarching anthropological interest is evident even in the late Socialisme ou Barbarie texts – it is as a result of this specific exigency that we might account for his turn toward psychoanalysis – but the turn to the consideration of living being specifically partakes of two trajectories of exploration starting in the early 1980s, the combination of which is precisely what concerns me here: 1) the examination of the ancient Greek imaginary as a particular cosmological proposition, especially as it is configured in the earliest social-historical manifestations of the polis even before democracy is instituted (hence the attention to pre-Socratic thinking), and 2) as part of Castoriadis’ ongoing conversation with the sciences (both physics and mathematics, but also cognitive science), a sharper focus on ontological questions and the elaboration of his understanding of pour soi, which has both psychoanalytic and biological dimensions, as well as an intrinsic connection to how the creative imagination eludes mathematization.

9From his short comments on Principles of Biological Autonomy in the first issue of Le Débat in 1980 we know how much Castoriadis welcomed Francisco Varela’s (and by extension Humberto Maturana’s) groundbreaking contribution to the life sciences, which he saw as rigorously philosophical. Not only because Varela’s and Maturana’s thinking inaugurates a way of looking at the autonomy of the living being with a term that would have special resonance for Castoriadis (autopoiesis), but also because the image of the living organism sketched out from their Autopoiesis and Cognition (1972) onward dismantles the classic model of information science that assumes an organism to enact a cognitive mapping of already formed external data which it receives as input from an objectively constituted nature. The dismantling of this model is achieved by reconfiguring entirely, not only the previous model of the cognitive field as an already constituted domain of coded information, but the very terms that have enabled this field to be thought as such.

  • 5 Maturana (H.) and Varela (F.), Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Boston: D. (...)

10Instead of asking the question “How does an organism obtain information about its environment?” Varela and Maturana ask the question: “How does it happen that the organism has the structure that permits it to operate adequately in the medium in which it exists?5” In other words, the two biologists don’t care to interpret a passive condition of decoding but to determine the interactive domain that enables the categories self/other or self/non-self to even emerge and be signified. Thus, they not only precipitate a shift from a semantic to a structural question, but moreover, identify the structural framework to be predicated on a set of principles that are intricately and mutually determining in unconventional ways. Namely – and I summarize what is an exceedingly meticulous argument – they delineate a process (which is, however, not linear) according to the following steps: 1) though every unity appears to work as a simple unity, it is in fact composite; 2) the recognition and transmission of whatever characterizes this unity (this organism) is readable in its components; 3) these components are not dictated by the objective pressures of the environment, but are created by the organism itself according to its own internal needs (autopoiesis); 4) these internally created components realize in turn the structure of environment in which the organism exists; 5) the environment thus becomes a medium that enables this self-creation; and in conclusion, 6) living systems are thus (composite) units of self-creation and self-sufficiency that exist in an ambience of interplaying forms.

  • 6 F. Varela and P. Bourgine (eds.), Toward a Practice of Autonomous Systems (Boston: MIT Press, 1992 (...)

11Although Maturana and Varela affirm the rather standard biological thesis that characterizes autonomous systems by their achievement of operational closure – in the algebraic sense of a system’s operations remaining within the system’s domain – they nonetheless reject models of closed systems, strictly non-interactive input/output systems. Operational closure for them consists in the basic sense of an organism’s necessity to always have a precise sense of its limit, paradigmatically understood at the level of minimal cellular self-constitution but also reconstitution should this be necessary: “One of the most paradigmatic cases of operational closure is the very origin of life as the emergent unit of minimal cellular organization, where the biochemical closure of membrane constitution and metabolic repair make the cell a viable self-distinguishing autopoietic unit6”. In other words, a basic operational closure is necessary in order for interaction to be achieved and for environmental ambience to enable the autopoiesis of living beings, which, as we will see in a minute, will animate the differential process of alteration, of the emergence (indeed, Castoriadis would say creation) of other forms, from within the ontic condition of the living being, that ultimately exceed all figures of closure.

12Along these lines of thinking, what makes Autopoiesis and Cognition a radical intervention is that, unlike a typical biological treatise, it engages with the social environment of the human living being, and indeed with its politics. As autopoietic systems, the argument goes, human beings first and foremost engage in social operations that satisfy the terms of autopoiesis (according to what is desirable or undesirable to an organism’s self-sustenance – not merely a physiological but a psychical process, which for Castoriadis would never be entirely separable), but such operations, insofar as they exist in an interactive medium, pertain directly to the overall social framework–which is characteristically described as a homeostatic balance (xxvii). While the tendency of every social environment is to sustain and reproduce itself (and is thereby conservative in the final instance), Maturana and Varela argue that at times the autopoietic process of self-sustainment may produce components that the social system will recognize as problematic. (Castoriadis would add – to remember the psychoanalytic dimension – that it is precisely at the point of developing a defunctionalized psychism that human-being enables the rupture of the foundational cognitive closure of living being as such.) In response, the system will either attempt to absorb the problematic components or will disengage itself from them, thereby enabling the production of another system. This is indeed how Maturana and Varela account for the alteration of living systems, and, significantly from a Castoriadian standpoint, they characterize the transformative (and thereby socially destabilizing) element as “social creativity”:

This is why social creativity, as the generation of novel social relations, always entails interactions operationally outside the society, and necessarily leads to the generation, by creative individuals, of modes of conduct that either change the defining relations of the society as a particular social system, or separate them from it. Social creativity is necessarily antisocial in the social domain in which it takes place. (xxvii-xxviii)

13Social creativity brings forth an internal contradiction within the system, which the system will in every instance attempt to restrict. For this reason, Maturana and Varela argue, the organic inclination of societies is to be heteronomous. They don’t use the word, but this is in essence what they mean when they speak of the tendency toward totalitarian organization that disallows the “observer positions” – that is, positions that operate “as if external to the situation one finds oneself, [which] allows him, if he has the proper experiences, to contemplate the societies that he integrates and to like them or dislike them” (xxix). From the biological standpoint, if an autopoietic being finds the ambience undesirable, as it were, it will seek to produce component modalities that will attempt to alter it, and it will either succeed or the structural coupling will fail and, as a dissident entity, it will be expelled in turn so as either to be extinguished or to help form other structures. Incidentally, Maturana and Varela also speak of those situations in human societies where the system “does not involve one’s autopoiesis as a constitutive feature of it” and thereby produces conditions of “social abuse.” The institution of slavery, as the forceful incapacitation of autopoiesis in a specifically designated people, would be an obvious example of such conditions.

14They conclude with the following stipulation, which is amazing from the standpoint of typical biological thought:

A human society in which to see all human beings as equivalent to oneself, and to love them, is operationally legitimate, without demanding from them a larger surrender of individuality and autonomy than the measure one is willing to accept for oneself while integrating it as an observer, is a product of human art, that is, an artificial society that admits change and accepts every human being as not dispensable. Such a society is necessarily a non-hierarchical society for which all relations of order are constitutively transitory and circumstantial to the creation of relations that continuously negate the institutionalization of human abuse. Such a society is in essence an anarchist society, a society made for and by observers that would not surrender their condition of observers as their only claim to social freedom and mutual respect. (xxix-xxx).

15We do not need to get bogged down with specific words to understand that the sort of society described here is a democratic society of free and autonomous individuals and, in this respect, precisely anarchist insofar as the archē is marked, as Aristotle first argued, by the autonomous sharing of both the archon and the archomenos position (“whereby the ruler learns by being ruled”). Even if the terms don’t quite match, there is a lot of Castoriadis to recognize here, including the fact that the basic tendency of society is toward closure and assimilation of dissidence and that the breaking of this closure, the project of autonomy, is an “abnormal” development, a development against the grain, whose difficult art is the only desirable course of life for free human beings.

  • 7 Castoriadis (C.), “Francisco Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy” [review] in Le Débat 1 (198 (...)

16Let us recall that Castoriadis subscribed perfectly to the organizational closure of the living being in all cases, as a necessary condition of self-determination which indeed also determines the knowledge of the boundaries between self and other – strictly speaking, self and non-self. “The living being [le vivant] cannot be but only by making be the distinction between self and non-self [soi et non-soi]. But this non-self cannot be for itself except by virtue of those modes determined by the self [mais ce non-soi ne peut être pour lui que selon des modes déterminés par le soi]. As an immediate result, there is no sense in talking about “representation” of the outside on the inside (or, in a terminology that isn’t Varela’s own: it is the living being that creates the “image” [of self] – both as image and as such an image [of self])7”. But this dimension of strict organizational closure, as the very making of identity, is not to be understood, Castoriadis points out, strictly in the ensidic dimension. Rather, it exceeds the self-regulating demands of calculating and organizing knowledge into self-enclosed and fully determined domains (in the likeness of mathematical sets) precisely because the material components of an organism’s composite unity are self-created – and, one might say, re-created – as modes of knowledge and determination in the environmental space that marks the encounter between the organism and its world, between this being and that being, between being and Being, between self and other.

  • 8 Castoriadis (C.), Postscript on Insignificance: Dialogues with Castoriadis (London: Continuum, 2011 (...)

17Let us also recall Castoriadis’ insistence that between these encountering pairs, in their various registers, there does not exist a symmetrical correspondence, some sort of mirroring, precisely because, though radically self-sufficient, these entities are not inert, at the very least because they are not inanimate. They are living – which is also always to say, dying: that is, subjected to the order of time and therefore to alteration, to generation and degeneration. In other words, the encounter is always asymmetrical and dynamic, thereby opening the organism’s components to new capacities of knowledge and comprehension of the world. In complex living systems and surely in human-being, this is implicated in the psycho-social construction of subjectivity and its interminable and unlimited phantasmatic capacity for creation of new forms. In their 1995 radio dialogue, Varela confirms that Castoriadis’understanding of an elemental phantasmatic pour soi that creates and organizes its own proper significational universe is commensurable to the biological findings about the autopoietic capacity of all living beings, which, as Varela himself says, precipitates an “imaginary excess” at a primary self-determining level which permeates the entire social sphere of determination8.

18Castoriadis’ response is to pinpoint in turn, from his perspective, one of the most inscrutable domains of knowledge: how this phantasmatic excess operates as somatic inscription. His attention to the corporeal aspect of the psyche is motivated, among other things, by his consistent critique of cybernetic or information-computation models of cognition, which are quintessential models of heteronomy. Without going here into the discussion of the affective Vorstellung of the human psyche and thereby entirely into a psychoanalytic discussion, let us simply focus on the problem of the human capacity of thought (phantasia in Aristotelian terms) and specifically, the fact that no creative knowledge can be achieved without passion, which is not merely affect, but somatic expression of the singular experience of human-being as a condition of life. For Castoriadis, experience is signified in a double register: on the one hand, through the French notion of expérience as an experimental encounter with one’s world, and on the other hand, through the Greek notion of peira (and its relation to peras), which imbues the meaning of experience with an outmaneuverable condition of the limit of time, the fact of finitude and mortality. We have, in other words, a fabulous interweaving of signification (experiment and finitude) that does indeed make human experience incalculable, unformalizable, and unreproducible – in Castoriadis’own terms, magmatic. On this basis of configuring knowledge for the living being, Castoriadis and Varela concur that the creative (autopoietic) capacity of living being, of pour soi, exceeds all ensidic dimensions and opens up the specific terrain of cognition that will enable us to confront heteronomy as a problem of our own making and, therefore, as a condition that can be unmade, even if with enormous difficulty.


  • 9 See indicatively Adams (S.), “Castoriadis and Autopoiesis”, Thesis Eleven, 88 (February 2007), p. (...)

19Confronting heteronomy is inevitably a political matter, but it demands a shift in social-imaginary institutions, and thereby involves a great deal of other dimensions, not least an overcoming of traditional ontological and cosmological attitudes. An understanding of experience as substantially experimental and finite configures an understanding of living being as an essentially temporal mode implicated in the creation and destruction of forms. This means a poietic mode of being – not just autopoietic, poietic of self, but rather poietic of the other, or more precisely, autopoietic of the other. This mode of being creates alterity first as inherent dimension of the self and second (not sequentially, but grammatically speaking) as necessary dimension of the world. Hence Castoriadis’ notion of à-être as a condition of both tending toward and intending being, being as continuously becoming-being both by tendency and by intention. In other words, Being can never be fully constituted as a space of plenitude and identity even though every living being does have, necessarily, a primordial sense of itself (primary signification) as an order of plenitude and identity with/in its proper world (Eigenwelt). As à-être, the ontological dimension bears an inherent alterity, much as it enacts the poietic formation of alterity and self-alteration. Moreover, since cosmological time is precisely delineated by the creation/destruction of forms in a trajectory of alteration through time, being is a temporal notion as much as it is poietic. From this standpoint, one might say that Castoriadis alters Varela’s configuration by restoring the physis/nomos distinction (while, of course, retaining their necessary entwinement and tension), and this is how we might chart the shift from autopoiesis to autonomy9.

  • 10 Castoriadis (C.), Ce qui fait la Grèce: D’Homère à Héraclite (Paris: Seuil, 2009), p. 167-168. Henc (...)
  • 11 The mythical and the mathematical can never overcome each other and are fully entwined in each oth (...)

20Castoriadis’ ontological thinking partakes of a pre-Socratic cosmological language, which posits an abyssal and infinite chaos as the generative pool of a cosmos that comes to be formed, by virtue of the ineluctable exigency of time, as a finite yet ever-renewable world of meaning and being. Living being specifically is self-constituted in part by its irrepressible desire for meaning, for making (poiein) meaning. This desire for poietically making meaning, which in the ancient Greek world is expressed in the outmaneuverable social-historical institution of myth – without myth we cannot speak of a Greek social-imaginary – emerges in the background of total meaninglessness, of non-sense, or in Castoriadis’ language the a-sensed: “The Greek myths are true because they unveil a signification of the world that cannot be reduced to any kind of rationality, a signification that constantly presents a sense of things over a background of the a-sensed [le sens sur fond d”a-sensé], a background of non-sense, whereby the non-sense is presented as everywhere penetrated by sense10”. And he adds, the singular importance of Greek myth is not that it reveals the signification of rationality; rather “it unveils as ultimate signification of the world the lack of meaning [a-sensé] and that meaning emerges, as a figure, on the ground of this meaninglessness, while always being condemned, however, to return to this ground” (CQFG 169)11.

  • 12 I discuss the Anaximander fragment at length (including Castoriadis’ analysis of it) in “Archē” in(...)
  • 13 Castoriadis (C.), “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy” in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy(...)

21Quintessential to this configuration of sense and non-sense, of meaning and meaninglessness, is the handful of words, known as the Anaximander fragment, that encapsulate the Greek social-imaginary, particularly the broader horizon of understanding the permutations of archē, all the way to the institution of tragedy and, of course, democracy12. Anaximander is the first to give language to a notion of the infinite (apeiron), not in the sense in which it was later mathematized, but as the groundless, meaningless, and indeterminate space from which a determined, meaningful, and finite cosmos emerges – or rather is formed – and to which it returns. It returns because it must pay recompense – in decay, degeneration, death – for having disrupted the infinite fold. In this imaginary, not death but life itself constitutes an injustice, which is why this is a tragic imaginary, but also why it is an imaginary in which the question of justice is a cosmic (worldly) affair and never a matter of theodicy or any sort of transcendental categorical principle. The chaos/cosmos divide–which does not register a chasm but is rather an ever conflicted relation–is echoed in a series of such dyadic antagonisms: hubris/dike, physis/nomos, etc. which, in the Greek imaginary (at least until Plato), preclude the tendency toward a unitary ontology, thereby providing an interstitial opening to the radical interrogation necessary to the project of autonomy: “Unitary ontology, in whatever guise, is essentially heteronomous. The emergence of autonomy in Greece was conditioned by the non-unitary view of the world that is expressed from the beginning in Greek myths13.” This non-unity is not configured in the struggle between the infinite and the finite, the indeterminate and the determined, as if they are two polarities as different universes. The struggle takes place within the infinite; what is determined to be (to live and to die) emerges determined within the interminable and indeterminable non-unitary to-be (à-être).

22The paradoxical figure of the ontological injustice of death being at the same time a reconstitution of the order of the infinite, therefore a gesture of justice against the injustice of existence disrupting the infinite fold, suggests a social-imaginary that takes irrevocable death as ultimate limit of living being, the only untranscendable limit that thereby frees life from any other imposed limits. (Where limits, we might also want to write determinations.) It may seem then that heteronomy is removed from the realm of necessity in the course of one’s life and relegated to one and only place: death. But in death, there is no nomos strictly speaking. Nomos occurs and has meaning only in the course of living. So, the untranscendable limit of death is not the last instance of a naturalized heteronomy, but precisely the irrevocable limit point that de-naturalizes heteronomy altogether. From this standpoint, limits or determinations in the course of one’s life are open to becoming a matter of self-knowledge, self-determination, autonomy–in the strictest sense of determining the question of what is nomos within one’s conditions of living. In his analysis of Anaximander, Castoriadis points out the co-incidence between Anaximander’s fragment and the Aeschylian imagination in Prometheus Bound, specifically the notion of physis subject to (or crossed by) nomos thereby opening the path for the creation of an autonomous life in a tragic universe (CQFG, 113). In this respect, tragedy itself, as a particular form of social and poetic practice, is exemplary of giving expression to the ontological chaos that permeates all existence and thus precipitates the conditions for human beings to realize that: 1) there is a necessity for nomos, otherwise life is defeated by its own meaninglessness and 2) this necessity does not confine humans to a de facto subjugation to nomos, because it opens the way for them to create meaning and the frameworks of meaning.

  • 14 Castoriadis (C.), “Culture in a Democratic Society” in The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1 (...)

23This path, the path of autonomy, is quintessentially poietic. If the cosmos of all living being is characterized by a formative capacity to create itself, an elemental vis formandi, Castoriadis argues, then human-being is characterized in addition by a libido formandi: “To the potential for creation found in being in general, the human sphere adds a desire for formation. I call this potential and this desire the “poietic” element of humanity. Reason itself, in its specifically human form (which is not the same as the rationality intrinsic to animals, for example), is but an offspring.” And he goes on: “When man organizes rationally – ensidically – he does nothing but reproduce, repeat, or prolong already existing forms. But when he organizes poietically, he gives form to the Chaos14.” Tragedy is one of the most glorious forms of this poietic organization, for its very object, the crux of what it presents or performs, is the Chaos of Being itself. In a double gesture that, on the one hand, exemplifies the extraordinary capacity of the human imagination to create meaning in a poetic form which, on the other hand, presents the brutal reality of the ultimate incapacity of human-beings to be masters over the meaninglessness of their existence, resides the tragic character of autonomy.

  • 15 Castoriadis (C.), Fenêtre sur le chaos (Paris: Seuil, 2007), p. 134-35.

24So, confronting heteronomy requires not only an acceptance of a tragic way of life, but also a poietic existence in response. What do I mean? If we think of Castoriadis’ notion of chaos in relation to Anaximander’s infinite archē, then human-being itself, insofar as it cannot be reduced to a mere actualization/animation of organic matter but is characterized by its capacity for a lucid creation of societal institutions, is, in its short finite existence, a mode of giving form to the chaos from which it emerges. However, because the very existence of society’s imaginary institution tends, almost always, toward the occlusion of chaos as such, any mode of giving form to chaos – not as reproduction of instituted forms but as creation of new forms – must be simultaneously a process of uncovering chaos (Castoriadis calls it dévoilement), of making chaos visible as the generative background upon which human-being’s poietic force is enacted. Castoriadis sees this uncovering as an interruption of the quotidian flow of already established (instituted) forms, a tearing (déchirure) of the apparently evident. Uncovering chaos and giving it form is one and the same thing, an extraordinary simultaneity that interrupts all established time flow15. In the language we have been engaging so far, this tearing would be the point where nomos intersects with physis. In the sense that this uncovering/forming is the moment of poiēsis (a “lucid drunkenness” Castoriadis calls it in an inspired phrase), then autonomy is quintessentially poietic. And, although Castoriadis doesn’t ever say it directly, I would argue that the poietic process which is intrinsic to the project of autonomy – a project that is interminable insofar as there is no telos of it that remains uninterrogated – is a kind of permanently open window onto Chaos.


  • 16 Gourgouris (S.), Does Literature think? Literature as Theory for an Antimythical Era (Standford: St (...)

25This poietic existence, this openness to chaos, cannot be explained. At least, it cannot be explained in the sense that it can be fully accounted for, that it can be fully analyzed and categorized, although inevitably the fact that we use language at all to even simply describe it partakes of this domain of explicability or analyzability. Questions then arise as to its epistemology. If we cannot quite know it, then what mode of knowledge does it enact? What is its relation to plain analytical knowledge or calculation? How can we even describe (since we can’t quite explain or account for) its cognitive capacity? Motivated by this same problem of describing poietic existence and the same questions about how poetic cognition exceeds analytical knowledge, I argued in Does Literature Think? (2003) that the cognitive capacity of literature, as opposed to philosophy, was mythographic and performative16. Here, I am interested in what Castoriadis has described as a magmatic mode of knowledge as opposed to the totalizing explanation of mathematical knowledge because, in the last instance, confronting heteronomy demands a praxis that is not adequately conducted by the cunning of reason or the skills of calculation.

  • 17 Castoriadis (C.), The Imaginary Institution of Society, Kathleen Blamey trans. (Cambridge: MIT, 198 (...)
  • 18 Castoriadis (C.), “Done and To Be Done” in The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 379

26The earliest definition of magma as a mode of organization (of knowledge or of being) was construed specifically to counter the mathematical notion of a set (in French, ensemble): “A magma is that from which one can extract (or in which one can construct) an indefinite number of ensemblist organizations but which can never be reconstituted (ideally) by a (finite or infinite) ensemblist composition of these organizations17.” A later statement, arising out of a discussion of magma in relation to the psyche, is less directly mathematical: “A magma’s mode of being signifies simply that the object under consideration is neither reducible to these ensidic organizations nor exhaustible by them18.” In both accounts, the magma and the set (ensemble) are not situated in simple opposition or difference. A magma exceeds the set in the sense that, as the first definition has it, it can include a set or a set may be extracted from it but, on the one hand, it cannot be reconstituted on the basis of this extracted or constructed set and, on the other hand, as the second definition clarifies, it can neither be reduced to a set nor exhausted by it. A simple way to think of this relation is to say that, although magmas can generate sets, sets cannot (de) generate into magmas. In other words, what Castoriadis signified as ensidic logic cannot adapt itself to or entail a magmatic mode of being without utterly dissipating, while from a magmatic pool of determinations, an ensidic organization may emerge or be constructed. “Ideally, starting from magmas, we should try to describe ensembles as ‘immersed in’ magmas” (LoM, 296), but no magma “can be partitioned into magmas” (LoM, 297), in the sense that all notions of partition or categorization (as opposed to immersion) are only possible within ensidic logic. A magma is never totalizable, which is to say simultaneously that it is neither ever fully determined nor ever exhaustible; hence, “every decomposition of magmas into ensembles leaves a magma as residue” (LoM, 297). This inexhaustibility of the magmatic mode avails the possibility of potentially interminable generation of, not only ensembles (sets), but also ruptures, creations, or altogether new determinations–radically new precisely in the sense that they are non-derivative of whatever is in place, because derivation too (like categorization or partition) is possible only within ensidic logic.

27There are two issues that concern us in this context, before we return to the question of autonomy and heteronomy proper: the question of determinacy and the question of the radically new. The main reason that drove Castoriadis to invent the notion of magma was to account for domains of being that cannot be fully determined or fully categorized, however without wanting to cede ground to some sort of unqualified skepticism or radical contingency, which he always argued were in any case nonsensical positions in a physical universe of mathematical laws. One of the key domains that defied this universe, while existing fully within it – whose elucidation provided in fact the initiative of the formulation of magma – is the radical imagination, which for Castoriadis ultimately consists of the human animal’s capacity to conceive things that have never existed prior in any way, shape or form. Hence, the question of radical creation is intimately linked to the question of determinacy, of what is indeterminate in ensidic terms but determinate and determining in a magmatic sense.

  • 19 “The wheel revolving around an axis is an absolute ontological creation. It is a greater creation, (...)

28Much has been made, in terms of negative critiques, of the notion of creation ex nihilo, one of the most controversial of Castoriadis’ philosophical tropes. Given what we have rehearsed so far, we don’t really need to wonder why Castoriadis insists on this figure. His entire anthropo-ontological framework is based on the idea that what distinguishes the human animal specifically is the capacity to create form (eidos) that is entirely unprecedented, previously inconceivable, and indeed nonexistent in any sense prior to the moment and fact of its creation. He insists time and again that creation does not entail the production of difference but the emergence of otherness. This capacity for the wholly new, wholly other, is what distinguishes the radical imagination. The ex nihilo is there to accentuate the fact that we are not talking about reformulation, infinite variation, creative assembly or rearrangement of already existing forms. His example that the invention of the wheel is a more radical and splendorous creation in the universe than a new galaxy is well known, for every new galaxy emerging in space is ultimately but another instance of the galaxy form, whereas the wheel is entirely unprecedented19. The often used idiomatic injunction in English encapsulates what Castoriadis has in mind: “you” re reinventing the wheel!” means you” re not being creative, you” re not using your imagination, you are wasting your effort in reproducing what exists (however we are to consider the merits or inevitabilities of this kind of effort).

29But Castoriadis – especially in late years and in order to defend himself from likely misunderstandings – insisted on the clarification that ex nihilo did not mean in nihilo or cum nihilo. Unprecedented radical creation out of nothing does not mean with(in) nothing, in a vacuum. On the contrary, what makes it radical is precisely that it takes place in history, as history – that indeed it makes history anew. There is no way such creation can register as history anew without destroying, in some form or other, what exists in place, whether we conceive this as simply what resists the new or merely what resides there unwitting of whatever will newly emerge to displace it or efface it. New social-imaginary creations do contribute to the vanishing of social-imaginary institutions already there. That’s why we don’t have Pharaonic priests, Spartan warriors, or Knights of the Round Table running around in the streets of New York or the suburbs of Paris.

  • 20 See Van Eynde (L.), “Castoriadis et Bachelard: un imaginaire en partage”, Cahiers critiques de phi (...)

30In retrospect, it is possible to construct a description – to write a history – of how and what elements and processes characterize the creation of new social-historical being. A common example in Castoriadis, discussed at various junctures in his work and arguably culminating in the years that made up the seminars of Ce qui fait la Grèce (1982-85) is how the specifics of the Cleisthenes reforms that encapsulate the creation of Athenian democracy as new social-historical being are “traceable” – if that’s the proper word – in the complexities of the social-imaginary institution of the Greek polis, which Castoriadis duly points all the way back to the earliest Greek textual documentation–Homer, Hesiod, Anaximander, Sappho. In this sense, Castoriadis’ theory of creation ex nihilo may not be entirely unrelated to various theories of discontinuity in history. I cannot pursue here this line of comparison, but it’s a worthwhile path of reflection to consider the line, otherwise alien to Castoriadis, that extends (in the French tradition at least) from Bachelard to Foucault. If we don’t adhere dogmatically to the notion of the “epistemological rupture” characteristic of this line – in the same way that we would not heed the accusations against Castoriadis that creation ex nihilo ushers some sort of theology in the back door – then we might arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the notion20.

31But there is also another dimension to this issue that I don’t think has been adequately attended to. In his classic essay “Fait et à faire” (1989), Castoriadis speaks of what grants validity to creation – its encounter with the world. I quote extensively:

Newton certainly did not “discover”, he invented and created the theory of gravitation; but it happens (and this is the why we are still talking about it) that this creation encounters [rencontre] in a fruitful way what is, in one of its strata.
We create knowledge. In certain cases (mathematics) we also create, thereby, the outside time. In other cases, (mathematical physics) we create under the constraint of encounter; it is this encounter that validates or invalidates our creations.

32And later on:

  • 21 Castoriadis (C.), “Done and To Be Done”, in The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 39 (...)

To the extent that we can effectively comprehend something about a foreign society, or say something valid about it, we proceed to a re-creation of significations, which encounter the originary creation... A being without the re-creative capacity of the imagination will understand nothing about it21.

33Let us focus for a moment on two elements: “the constraint of encounter” and “the re-creative capacity of the imagination”. The first is precisely to emphasize that ex nihilo does not mean in nihilo or cum nihilo. Not only is radical creation out of nothing always enacted in the world, but it is enacted as and constrained by an encounter. The “nothing” out of which radical creation emerges exists, in the most precise sense, in the world; it is not, in other words, some sort of transcendental nowhere. And though we should not at all compromise the notion – we indeed mean out of nothing; we mean, in the ancient Greek sense, to note the passage “out of non-being into being” – we have to allow ourselves the paradoxical capacity to imagine both that this nothing, this non-being, is worldly and that, instantly upon coming to be something, this newly created being registers its worldliness by an unavoidable encounter with what exists, whether in the ensidic dimension of logic and calculation or beyond it, in the poietic dimension as such.

34There is, in other words, a dimension of determination in ex nihilo creation because any radical imaginary creation always posits something – the new – In relation to something else– what is. But by bringing into being something not in connection with (not previously determined by) something that is, it thereby alters the terms of relation of “what is” or otherwise creates terms of relation that did not previously exist: “The imaginary institution of society boils down to the constitution of ‘arbitrary’ points of view, starting from which ‘equivalences’ and ‘relations’ are established” (LoM, 305). The words in quotations in this statement are what ensidic logic identifies as necessary to situations of complexity and multiplicity. Yet, what is “necessary” or intrinsic to the process is the magmatic “arbitrariness” of complexity or multiplicity – even if “arbitrariness” too is ensidic wording. Determination and organization of material cannot possibly happen if this material does not have an intrinsic capacity to be organized and determined, “if the ‘material’ does not already include in itself the ‘minimal form’ of being formable” (LoM, 306). In this sense, we come back to what Maturana and Varela found to be an essential dimension of living systems against the precepts of information science or cybernetic knowledge: namely, that an organism must already possess a structure (in their language) that permits it to operate within the medium in which it exists, an inherent capacity to form itself in its environment, so that the environment does not dictate its formation.

35The ensidic dimension of the environment, of course, exists everywhere; without it, we cannot even ask the question “what is?” Yet, however we are to conceive and ask the question, “what is is not fully determined. What is is Chaos with irregular stratification” (LoM, 307) – quite literally, a magma. No one would feel the need to underline that a magma exists, if we were talking about volcanoes; just as no one would feel the need to account for the fact that what a volcanic magma “contains” cannot ultimately be differentiated – fully determined – in the various singular terms. What makes a magma cannot be separately determined. Magmas are characterized precisely by this non-determination, which is hardly to say that they are of indeterminate existence, unknown, inconceivable. “The nondetermination of what is is not mere “indetemination” in the privative and ultimately trivial sense. It is creation, namely, emergence of other determinations, new laws, new domains of lawfulness... No state of being is such that it renders impossible the emergence of determinations other than those already existing” (LoM, 308).

36The emergence of this otherness from within what already exists, and not because otherness exists in abstract transcendental fashion in some non-place of being other, is what autonomy is all about. Autonomy implies auto-heterōsis, to use Castoriadis’ Greek term for selfalteration. Contrary to both Kantian derivations and information science models of self-sufficiency, self-constitution, and self-referentiality, Castoriadis argues with exceptional clarity:

Autonomy is not closure but, rather, opening: ontological opening, the possibility of going beyond the informational, cognitive, and organizational closure characteristic of self-instituting, but heteronomous beings. It is ontological opening, since to go beyond this closure signifies altering the already existing cognitive and organizational “system,” therefore constituting one’s world and one’s self according to other laws, therefore creating a new ontological eidos, another self in another world. (LoM, 310, italics in the text)

37In this sense, autonomy – which, let us recall, is always social autonomy, not some sort of individual state – is a state of incompleteness, much like, for Anaximander, the infinite (apeiron) is literally, as the word has it, incomplete. For this utterly elementary reason, autonomous being has absolutely nothing to do with models of autotelic or automatic being, contrary to what is often bizarrely argued. Even if we were to assume, as we would have to, that the telos of autonomous being would be to sustain itself, this telos can hardly be the mere extension or repetition of a status quo. This telos would have to undergo its continuous othering, the making (poiein) of “another self in another world” as Castoriadis says above, for every configuration of purpose or end would have to be subjected to inquiry and evaluation anew, for no nomos of ends and purposes can emerge or be fashioned to exist outside the “self” – the auto – that decides and institutes.

  • 22 “Mastery is an illusion. If we hold onto the idea of mastery we end up with the good society as it (...)

38This is why autonomy cannot be relegated to simple self-constitution – to recall here Castoriadis’sole critique of Maturana and Varela. First of all, all being, regardless, is always self-constituted, whether we think of this in terms of organic matter or atomic particles or societies and cultures. An autonomous community–say, in modern historical terms, the Kronstadt Commune or the anarcho-syndicalist councils in Barcelona – is characterized by having made self-constitution an explicit and articulate process that demands and achieves specific political institutions. This process isn’t a matter of mere uncovering, of rolling back the occlusion, because once self-constitution is elucidated as to what it is, it is formally altered. It ceases to be an automatic process, always counted on to work in the same way whether naturalized, theologized, or technologized, and it becomes a framework of creative inquiry and formation, a poietic framework, which enables the chaos that never ceases to underlie it to emerge. This is why autonomy also cannot be adequately understood as sovereignty, as mastery of power. A self-organized, self-governing community – a democracy in the uncompromising sense of the term–is constituted on the basis of always questioning and examining the process of decision, which is in the last instance necessarily collective, even if made by a specific delegate or statesman (in the ancient sense), because no individual is sovereign separate from the community. Sovereignty is always lurking within democracy, but the kratos of the demos can never exist, not just practically but even conceptually, without the demos. Popular sovereignty or, if you will, the people’s mastery of power is surely an inadequate term to describe a kratos that is always in the making by a demos always in the making (and most definitely unmaking, as the story of democratic Athens demonstrates), that is, a continuous process open to poiēsis22.

39This opening to poiēsis is also an opening to knowledge – self-knowledge, of course, which is to say, in the terms discussed here, self-knowledge of the otherness inherent in the self, of the self’s capacity for othering. This knowledge too is poietic; that is to say, it is not exhausted in analytical (ensidic) understanding. Even more, in exceeding the ensidic dimension, this mode of knowledge mobilizes a sort of understanding that recognizes the necessity, even if inadequacy, of the ensidic. To the contrary, any form of being that inhabits fully ensidic parameters is impervious to this knowledge. Being immersed in a heteronomous condition means that one cannot know of this heteronomy – this is elementary. Whatever one would know in such a condition – and it can be described and understood in profound detail: legal institutions, political states, sacred practices, and givens of all kinds – one could never know it as heteronomy; at least, not without creating other conditions to overcome it, which would be in itself an act of autonomy.

  • 23 Castoriadis (C.), “From Ecology to Autonomy” in The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p (...)

40In this respect, all politics in the tradition of so-called self-organization or self-government is adequate to its name only insofar as its modes of action explicitly target the problem of heteronomy. It’s easy to say, of course, but inordinately difficult to conduct because the very institution of society itself derives its meaning (and certainly produces meaning) out of occluding the chaotic and groundless meaninglessness that underlies our existence, the organization (or nomos) of which it confers to authorities that transcend society and institutions. This curious and contradictory simultaneity of occluding the very thing that you organize and signify (give meaning to) is the immense power of society’s institution. This is why it’s nearly impossible, why it seems like folly, to resist. “The system holds together because it succeeds in creating people’s adherence to the way things are23.” So, the point isn’t only to change the way things are, to imagine and create things otherwise, but to understand and elucidate the ways and means by which this adherence is created. And here, we return to the double process by which heteronomy works. For, such profound adherence to “what is” cannot be actualized by sheer imposition. It requires an internalized motivation, a kind of performance of will (in fact, desire) over something that is too glorious to resist, not just because it inspires awe or even fear, but because it induces pleasure, and indeed at times the pleasure of being absorbed in the making of its glory.

41Such is the provenance of the sacred – not merely what has come to be called religion, but anything that comes to achieve sacred status in a particular society and culture. This would certainly include, in today’s so-called secular societies, the seduction of techno-science and rational mastery, the “right” of economic prosperity, the fetish of modernity, the (pseudo-) ideal of progress and development, etc., but equally, the (pseudo-) ideal of ancestry and tradition, the fetish of the nation, the sacristy of the Constitution and any other institution of law that makes Law into an ideal. To these, we could add, of course, all kinds of other transcendentalisms, of both ethics and aesthetics, and surely of politics, where politics – often times, alas, in the very name of democracy – is utterly theological. In Castoriadis’ language: “The sacred is the instituted simulacrum of the Abyss: religion confers a figure or figuration upon the Abyss and this figure is presented as both Ultimate Meaning and source of all meaning” (LoM, 315). We would not want to restrict this just to religion, of course – and Castoriadis himself has spoken of the allure of techno-science in exactly the same terms – but the point is accurate nonetheless. And indeed, religion – or what we have come to identify as “religion” – does operate both as end and as source of all meaning, thereby emptying out the signifying field and paralyzing people’s radical capacity to imagine and create wholly other meanings, or even, more simply, the capacity to recognize and encounter the cosmic meaninglessness as it is, for what it is.

42This isn’t just to point again to a tragic predicament. Encountering the cunning of the sacred is more than just unveiling or repealing the occultation of the underlying chaos. Because the cunning of the sacred consists in not only occulting chaos but simultaneously presenting chaos, giving it form. It is this simultaneity, this duplicity, that desacralization aims to break. For there is nothing to be unveiled. Or, if you will, veiling forms the Nothing. And this would be fine, if it did not disavow this nothingness, this meaninglessness, if the occulting act of the sacred did not obliterate “the metacontingency of meaning, namely the fact that meaning is a creation of society, that it is radically contingent for anyone who stands on the outside, and absolutely necessary for those who stand on the inside – therefore, neither necessary nor contingent” (LoM, 315-316). This obliteration holds equally for the religiously devout as for the rationalist-secularist or the cultural nationalist, etc. – whenever socially instituted phantasms are worshipped as what is above all.

43Confronting heteronomy then would come down to desacralizing nomos, to recognizing that there can never be any law that exists because it must, because it is necessary, or that there can never be any law that exists in the name of something other than it, not just God, but the Nation, the Ancestors, the Father, the People, or any Right or Reason, any Constitution or Legislator, and so on, who exist in some transcendental categorical Elsewhere.



Adams (S.), “Castoriadis and Autopoiesis”, Thesis Eleven, 88 (February 2007)

Adams (S.), Castoriadis’Ontology: Being and Creation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011)

Adorno (T.), Negative Dialectics, E. B. Ashton trans. (New York: Seabury Press, 1973)

Castoriadis (C.), “Francisco Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy” [review] in Le Débat 1 (1980)

Castoriadis (C.), The Imaginary Institution of Society, Kathleen Blamey trans. (Cambridge: MIT, 1987)

Castoriadis (C.), “Pour soi et subjectivité” in Arguments pour une méthode. Autour d”Edgar Morin (Paris: Seuil, 1990)

Castoriadis (C.), “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy” in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, David Ames Curtis ed. (Oxford University Press, 1991)

Castoriadis (C.), “Philosophy and Sublimation”, Thesis Eleven, 49 (May 1997)

Castoriadis (C.), “The Logic of Magmas and the Question of Autonomy” in The Castoriadis Reader, David Curtis ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)

Castoriadis (C.), “Culture in a Democratic Society” in The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)

Castoriadis (C.), “Done and To Be Done” in The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)

Castoriadis (C.), “From Ecology to Autonomy” in The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)

Castoriadis (C.), Fenêtre sur le chaos (Paris: Seuil, 2007)

Castoriadis (C.), Ce qui fait la Grèce: D’Homère à Héraclite (Paris: Seuil, 2009)

Castoriadis (C.), Thucydide, la force et le droit (Paris: Seuil, 2011)

Castoriadis (C.), Postscript on Insignificance: Dialogues with Castoriadis (London: Continuum, 2011)

Gourgouris (S.), “On Self-Alteration”, Parrhesia, 9 (Spring 2010)

Gourgouris (S.), Does Literature think? Literature as Theory for an Antimythical Era (Standford: Standford University Press, 2003).

Gourgouris (S.) “Archē” in Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon 2 (2012)

Maturana (H.) and Varela (F.), Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1980)

Van Eynde (L.), “Castoriadis et Bachelard: un imaginaire en partage” Cahiers critiques de philosophie, 6 (Summer 2008)

F. Varela and P. Bourgine (eds.), Toward a Practice of Autonomous Systems (Boston: MIT Press, 1992)


1 See “Philosophy and Sublimation”, Thesis Eleven, 49 (May 1997), p. 31-44 and “On Self-Alteration”, Parrhesia, 9 (Spring 2010), p. 1-17 []

2 Adorno began configuring this argument through his concept of “natural history” in 1932 and it informs the entire range of his work, including his musical theory. The figure of sedimentation becomes especially a propos in relation to my later discussion of the figure of magma in Castoriadis. See indicatively, Negative Dialectics, E. B. Ashton trans. (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), p. 300-360.

3 See Castoriadis (C.), Thucydide, la force et le droit, Seuil, Paris, 2011, p. 93-94, and on heteronomy in general, p. 92-96.

4 Adams (S.), Castoriadis’Ontology: Being and Creation, Fordham University Press, New York, 2011.

5 Maturana (H.) and Varela (F.), Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1980), xvi. Henceforth, page numbers referenced in the text.

6 F. Varela and P. Bourgine (eds.), Toward a Practice of Autonomous Systems (Boston: MIT Press, 1992), xii.

7 Castoriadis (C.), “Francisco Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy” [review] in Le Débat 1 (1980), p. 127.

8 Castoriadis (C.), Postscript on Insignificance: Dialogues with Castoriadis (London: Continuum, 2011), p. 61-62. See also Castoriadis (C.), “Pour soi et subjectivité” in Arguments pour une méthode. Autour d’Edgar Morin (Paris: Seuil, 1990), p. 118-127.

9 See indicatively Adams (S.), “Castoriadis and Autopoiesis”, Thesis Eleven, 88 (February 2007), p. 76-91.

10 Castoriadis (C.), Ce qui fait la Grèce: D’Homère à Héraclite (Paris: Seuil, 2009), p. 167-168. Henceforth referenced in the text.

11 The mythical and the mathematical can never overcome each other and are fully entwined in each other’s terms: “There is no society without myth, and there is no society without arithmetic. And still more important, there is no myth (or poems or music) without arithmetic – and certainly, too, there is no arithmetic without myth (be it the myth of the ‘pure rationality’ of arithmetic.” In Castoriadis (C.), “The Logic of Magmas and the Question of Autonomy” in The Castoriadis Reader, D. Curtis (ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 307. I discuss this text extensively below. All further passages are cited in the text, as LoM followed by page number.

12 I discuss the Anaximander fragment at length (including Castoriadis’ analysis of it) in “Archē” in Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon 2 (2012) (; translated into Hebrewin Mafteakh (

13 Castoriadis (C.), “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy” in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, David Ames Curtis ed. (Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 105.

14 Castoriadis (C.), “Culture in a Democratic Society” in The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 342-43.

15 Castoriadis (C.), Fenêtre sur le chaos (Paris: Seuil, 2007), p. 134-35.

16 Gourgouris (S.), Does Literature think? Literature as Theory for an Antimythical Era (Standford: Standford University Press), 2003).

17 Castoriadis (C.), The Imaginary Institution of Society, Kathleen Blamey trans. (Cambridge: MIT, 1987), p. 343.

18 Castoriadis (C.), “Done and To Be Done” in The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 379.

19 “The wheel revolving around an axis is an absolute ontological creation. It is a greater creation, it weighs, ontologically, more than a new galaxy that would arise tomorrow evening out of nothing between the Milky Way and the Andromeda. For there are already millions of galaxies – but the person who invented the wheel, or a written sign, was imitating and repeating nothing at all.” In Castoriadis (C.), The Imaginary Institution of Society, Kathleen Blamey trans. (Cambridge: MIT, 1987), p. 197.

20 See Van Eynde (L.), “Castoriadis et Bachelard: un imaginaire en partage”, Cahiers critiques de philosophie, 6 (Summer 2008), p. 178-179.

21 Castoriadis (C.), “Done and To Be Done”, in The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 396-397.

22 “Mastery is an illusion. If we hold onto the idea of mastery we end up with the good society as it was defined once and for all by a philosopher – that is, we end up in heteronomy”, Castoriadis (C.), Fenêtre sur le chaos (Paris: Seuil, 2007), p. 67.

23 Castoriadis (C.), “From Ecology to Autonomy” in The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 241.


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